'Collusions of the Mystery': Ideology and the Gothic in Hagar's Daughter

Article excerpt

Ideologies exist because there are things which must at all costs not be thought, let alone spoken. How we could ever know that there were such thoughts is then an obvious logical difficulty.

Terry Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction1

'I see no connection.'

Dr Watson to Sherlock Holmes in 'The Adventure of the Dancing Men'2

Detectives search for a source of knowledge. So does the Gothic heroine, the detective's prototype in the long evolution of 'mystery' fiction out of Gothic romance. But the radically gendered distance between Emily St Aubert and Monsieur Dupin or Sherlock Holmes - or the distance between Emily and Miss Marple, for that matter - is not only a question of the difference between Radcliffean sensibility and Poesque ratiocination. For the heroines of Ann Radcliffe, Regina Maria Roche, and all their fictional progeny, what finally matters is not finding a source of knowledge, but finding the source of mystery. The Gothic only indirectly, and by the most roundabout means, asks 'who did it?' (committed the murder, stole the jewel). Most overtly it asks what generated the obfuscating ambiance in which the heroine is immersed throughout the definingly Gothic sequences of the narrative: not who did this or that, but what produced the atmosphere of mystery - the flitting blue lights, the spectral apparitions, the strange groans in the deserted wing.

In both cases, however, the heroine's or the detective's task, in a context ordinarily removed from that with which Eagleton is concerned in the epigraph above, is to discover 'things which must at all costs not be thought, let alone spoken', and in both cases success depends on solving the Obvious logical difficulty' that then presents itself. With this fact we might pair two others. First, in classic detective fiction the modus operandi of the detective is to establish the revelatory interconnectedness of what are manifest to Betteredge or Watson or Inspector Lestrade only as disparate facts, irrelevant and unrelated fragments. second, one means by which hegemonic ideologies are constituted and sustained is through the drawing of mystifying dividing lines - lines that obscure the coherence of oppressive social, economic, and political structures by fragmenting them conceptually into categories that appear to be unrelated. These two facts are themselves rarely connected in detective fiction, and ideological mystification is rarely an explicit subject of the Gothic. This essay focuses on an exception to both rules: Pauline Hopkins' Hagar's Daughter (1901-02), an early twentieth-century African American romance that is both a revolutionary revisioning of traditional Gothic mystery and an oppositional deployment of the relatively new figure of the detective. In Hagar's Daughter, the Gothic question of what generated the mystery becomes a question about ideological mystification - more specifically its role in producing, by means of the kinds of ideological fault-lines mentioned above, the climate of violence and terror that characterized the period of African American history referred to as 'the nadir.'3

The importance of ideology to this detective/mystery story is revealed in the fact that the villain, St Clair Enson, alias Benson, a high official in the US Treasury, almost gets away with his crimes precisely because of the power of mystifying ideology to mask them. Hopkins' detectives are a team: Henson, a white man and chief of the secret Service; Smith, alias Uncle William Henry Jackson (an African American operative on Henson's force); and Venus Johnson, the young African American woman who gives Henson his first significant lead and then works on the case disguised as 'William's' grandson Billy. It is by working together in an alliance that crosses race and gender lines that they succeed in crossing the mystifying dividing lines on which the villain's success in hiding his crimes depends: lines that produce the illusory separations of masculine from feminine, black from white, home from state, African American families from Euro American families, and the antebellum past from a supposedly much-improved present. …